New perspectives on the tried-and-true: Boston Ballet’s ‘Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker’ 2023

Boston Ballet in 'Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker'. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, courtesy of Boston Ballet.
Boston Ballet in 'Mikko Nissinen's The Nutcracker'. Photo by Brooke Trisolini, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

The Citizens Bank Opera House, Boston, MA.
December 3, 2023.

I settled into my seat in the balcony and scanned the packed house. Typically, when I review Boston Ballet, the wonderful folks with the company can get me orchestra seats – but (combined with some last-minute scheduling) demand was just too high this time. I wondered, are we returning to levels of pre-COVID engagement with live arts? Maybe even exceeding that? Amazing if so, of course! 

Next, I took in this section’s view on the theater’s stunning murals and architecture – certainly a different view than what’s visible from down below. Yet, orchestra artists playing bars from Tchaikovsky’s iconic Nutcracker score, interspersed with other warming-up notes, brought me back to something familiar. 

That’s emblematic of the Nutcracker experience, at least my own — a balance of the old and new, the new sprinkled into the old to keep it all fully vibrant. I experienced something as magical as ever from a whole new perspective. 

Act I commenced with some of the elements that I think of when I think “Boston Ballet Nutcracker” — Drosselmeyer’s toy shop, the children playing in front of it, and elegant guests entering the Silberhauses’ holiday party. The stage became a ballroom replete with refined, tasteful opulence. We all enjoy some glitz and glam from time to time! 

Soon we met Clara, danced by Sophie Hatton with a beautiful balance of childlike excitement and more grown-up sophistication. The adult and child guests at the party brought an authentic holiday gathering to life: filled with equal parts social graces and dazzling movement. 

The Ballerina Doll (Alexa Torres) was light, soft and lovable. The Harlequin Doll (Rasus Ahlgren) created accents and shapes just as crisp as the sounds of his hand-held clapper toy. Them dancing together – a common choice in Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker – had them complimenting each other’s opposing movement qualities. 

Another longstanding element of Boston Ballet’s Nutcracker is its humor. The antics of the Bear (Gearóid Solan), Gingerbread Cookie and Bunny (Boston Ballet School students) always generate audible audience chuckles. It helps to keep scenes that could be frightening to little ones lighthearted (for example, the Battle Scene), and – for all attending – adds another satisfying layer to the vibrant program. 

Drosselmeier seemed to propel the magic forward through all of those layers. Lasha Khozashvili’s interpretation of the role offered both mystery and elegance. As always, I felt as captivated and awe-struck as Clara as her family’s Christmas tree grew to an enormous girth and the Nutcracker Prince (Paul Craig) emerged from it. 

The torch of the magic passed to the Snow King and Queen (Haley Schwan and Sangmin Lee), with their waltzing snowflakes – moving as softly yet steadily as the snow coming down from the rafters. A cloud lifted Clara and the Nutcracker up and away. The magic had really only just begun. 

During intermission, scanning my balcony view, the visual art of the theater once again left me awestruck. I pondered that much of the program was what I had seen before, yet the visual effect was different from high-up and far-back. It was more challenging to see subtle detail, yet easier to take in the action of the stage space as a whole. The dancers, for their part, performed in a way that translated all the way back to my balcony seat. 

As is the norm with Boston Ballet‘s Nutcracker, Act II opened with the landing of that cloud carrying the Nutcracker Prince and Clara to their next magical destination. After being introduced to its residents, they danced for her – in all of their unique ebullience. 

Spanish Chocolate (Henry Griffin, Alainah Grace Reidy, Crystal Serrano and Gearóid Solan) offered heaps of fiery fun, filling the stage with warm colors and pure physical energy. Shadows falling across the stage enhanced the mystery of Arabian Coffee (Sage Humphries and Patrick Yocum, with lighting design by Mikki Kunttu), deepening the intrigue of the silky, serpentine movement. 

Chinese Tea (Alexa Torres and Lawrence Rines Munro) was pure lightness and fun. The dancers’ long, hand-held streamers added more visual interest and kinetic dynamism than chopstick fingers ever could. French Marzipan (Sun Woo Lee, Nina Matiashvili and Abigail Merlis with students of Boston Ballet School) was light and fun in a different way — a sugary sweet world of no cares and all the refinement. The dancers’ jumps were just as graceful and poised as one would expect of Rococo painting figures come to life. 

Mother Ginger (Alexander Nicolosi, with students of Boston Ballet School), as is another Boston Ballet Nutcracker norm, danced with Drosselmeier – both of them doing their best to navigate her giant skirt. It’s another unique moment that seems to get the audience chuckling year-after-year. Her young friends danced with all the joy and vigor that one could hope for. The strikingly athletic crowd-pleaser that is Russian Troika (Daniel Durrett with Matthew Bates and Gearóid Solan) closed out the variations. 

Audience members that know The Nutcracker knew well what was coming next: The Waltz of the Flowers. Boston Ballet’s costume for the variation echoes long, thin trumpet flowers (set and costume design by Robert Perdziola). These dancers moved with just as much natural ease. 

Their many small jumps reflected the movement of countless individual petals. Their manège (a sequence of jumps that travel in a circle) reminisced a garden of carefully landscaped roses. Dew Drop felt like a flower who had dared to break free from the mold of this garden – and Kaitlyn Casey performed the role with as much distinctiveness and abandon. 

Lia Cirio, after a period of injury, was back to dance Sugarplum Fairy. Ethereal and effervescent, it was as much of a treat as ever to watch her in her element. Paul Craig supported her as a trusty partner, and then let his own athletic artistry shine in his Coda sections. 

Then, as Nutcracker aficionados would also be expecting, all of the residents of this sweetly magical land came back to see Clara off back home. They filled the large Opera House stage to the brim with their spirited cheer. The program closed as is its norm, with Clara awakening to wonder if it was all real, only to then find the tiara that the Sugarplum Fairy had given her. So it must have been real! Whether or no, she had experienced a once-in-a-lifetime journey to a whole other land. 

With a new perspective, everything we experience can be as fresh and singular. Yes, The Nutcracker is something that many see year and year – but it never has to get old. Find something new to focus on, notice the unique interpretations of the artists at hand, sit somewhere different (as I did this time); the possibilities there abound. As always, Boston Ballet‘s 2023 Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker reminded me that just the right mix of the novel and the familiar can be oh so sweet indeed. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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